Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

October 15, 2012

Argh, Neal Stephenson!!!

WARNING! What follows is like a review, only without any of the pensive analysis and even-handed evaluation one might expect from a reasonably seasoned reviewer. What follows may contain coarse language, frustrated outbursts, and crass sentiments. What follows is my I-just-put-the-book-down reaction to Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, REAMDE.

First of all, know that I am a huge – HUGE – Neal Stephenson fangirl. I think he’s just brilliant – a smart, big-idea thinker who writes snappy, smart, funny prose and tells intricate, incredible, well-plotted stories. I admit, yes, he is long-winded. But I have ever maintained that it pays off. Sure, it takes like 500 pages to get in to Quicksilver. But, no worries: there’s another 2500 pages after that in the story. It’s worth it, it’s to the point. Anathem might have two appendixes of raw mathematics to absorb but who cares? It’s plot math. Learn the math. It will enrich your reading experience and make you a fundamentally better person.

And I’ll admit, yes, his writing lately has been a bit rough-shod. Anathem is a minor mess of typos and in bad need of a substantive edit. It seem clear to me that it was written in one pass with no especial effort made to edit – but it is precisely this quality of instant, unedited genius that makes me love Stephenson. Obviously, everything that falls of his tongue is golden. He’s just talkin’, man. He’s just telling you a story, and it’s the greatest story ever told. He’s just raw dumping ideas straight into your lap. Ideas communicated to you by the best, funniest, most excellent characters doing all the coolest things.

So I was so very psyched about REAMDE even though, admittedly, the jacket flap made the story sound dull. Because, it’s Stephenson! He could write a phone book and it would blow your mind. 100 pages in, okay, maybe it would have been nice if someone had done an edit. Specifically, someone who understood Stephenson’s audience because, you know, we know what an URL is. We don’t need it explained. 200 pages, now we’re getting somewhere. 400 pages, it’s not clear where we are now.

500 pages in – the half way mark – I’m starting to feel disheartened. Because the story as I understood it blew up 200 pages ago, and the new story isn’t clear yet. I’m waiting for one of those big-idea bombs of Stephenson’s to hit and make it all mean something. I flip ahead to the end – yes, I read the end before the middle, this is common in my world – and it doesn’t seem immediately obvious that anything revolutionary is coming. So I wonder, well shit, what if this is all there is? And I have another 500 pages of it to go?

I equivocate on whether or not to finish the book. Over 24 hours I talk myself into and out of forging ahead. In the end I stick to the book for the sole unquestionable reason that I am completely in love with Csongor – the romantic lead, if the book can be said to have one – by now, and am skimming the paragraphs for physical descriptions of him. “Armed Hungarian man-tank” – be still my heart! It helps that Sokolov is also turning out to be a very yummy badass, so, okay, I can do this. It’s still Stephenson. There’s probably some pay off coming soon anyway.

700 pages and I’ve rallied a little. The characters have stopped meandering and they seem to be coming together to form a more unified plot of some kind.

800 pages, most of the characters are meandering again. Csongor – where is Csongor? I don’t know, but now we’ve met Seamus, who is sort of amusing.

900 pages. I’ve resorted to reading other people’s reviews of the book already, as they are less tedious than the book itself. I learn the final 150 pages of the book are basically one big gun battle, packed with the minutia of various firearms. Classic Stephenson infodump, but who the hell cares about guns? They aren’t even futuristic scifi guns. Oh man. I’m skimming again. Csongor’s back, but he’s had to take a back seat to the other, actual badass characters in the book. Sokolov makes every other character in the book entirely redundant. People are killed who I don’t remember having been introduced. The romantic climax of the book is over in three lines and pays off not at all. I can’t tell you how robbed I am feeling at this stage.

I’m still waiting for the payoff when I realize I’m reading the acknowledgements. I slam the tome shut. So that happened. I have finished, despite resistance, Neal Stephenson’s latest novel and basically, I’m so disappointed that I’m numb. Was it even that bad? Maybe I was hoping for something else? Would I be so disappointed if I hadn’t set the bar so high?

Well fuck that, really. I read Stephenson because I like my bar HIGH. REAMDE falls on its ass during the qualifiers and I still sat around for the final, that’s all. Should have read something else after the preliminary flub.

Back in the saddle, though. It’ll be at least another year before Stephenson’s likely to be able to vomit out another 1k pages, so that’s a good amount of time to detox and find what I wanted in someone else’s work. And who am I kidding? I will be all over Stephenson’s next. One fall? Really? I’ll survive. Maybe the next will be all that and more.

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *